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Fanfare Above the Potomac
Amid Acclaim, One Side of New Wilson Bridge Opens, but Just for Show

By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 19, 2006

A long-awaited structure connecting Virginia and Maryland was inaugurated yesterday when the drawbridge on the first of two spans of a new Woodrow Wilson Bridge was lowered into place, providing fresh hope to drivers who sit in jams like the ones seen on the shores of the Potomac River below.

Yesterday's hour-long red-white-and-blue ceremony -- the span will open to traffic June 9 -- began with a streak in the sky, where six F/A-18 Hornets of the Navy's Blue Angels roared north up the river and disappeared in the haze toward the Capitol.

Shortly after, the drawbridge was lowered and U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta and Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) walked from the western side of the bridge as Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) and D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) approached from the east.

An audience of more than 1,000 politicians, transportation officials and hard-hatted construction workers -- almost all of whom had something to do with building the bridge -- looked on while the U.S. Air Force Band played and two giant U.S. flags atop construction cranes whipped in the wind.

"We're nervous," Ehrlich called to Kaine and Mineta as the parties neared each other after walking about 100 yards on the 1.1-mile bridge. But they kept their composure, shook hands and exchanged hearty congratulations.

They then took an inaugural ride in Woodrow Wilson's 1923 black Rolls-Royce convertible -- the three area politicians squeezing into the back seat and Mineta riding shotgun. A handle on the wheel of the car offered a choice of slow or fast. The driver chose the former, and the car, marked with a thin orange stripe and the letters "WW" on one side, rolled unhurriedly across the bridge toward the crowd.

There, the leaders took hold of three-foot-long silver scissors, cut the ribbon and officially dedicated the bridge.

"This is a magnificent new bridge," Mineta said onstage moments later. "This bridge does show us that great things can happen when we all work together."

Despite the day's promise, the bridge isn't scheduled to open to traffic for three weeks. Many unfinished parts could be seen yesterday: scaffolding surrounded the half-completed drawbridge operator's tower, for example, and some sections of concrete barriers and railing were missing.

The impact of the span, which carries the Capital Beltway between Alexandria and Prince George's County, is likely to be modest. The new bridge is no wider than the one it is replacing, so access across the river is not expected to improve dramatically until the second, six-lane span opens in 2008. The two bridges are the centerpiece of a 7.5-mile, $2.44 billion project that includes remaking two interchanges on each shore.

Transportation officials expect some short-term traffic improvements. Unlike its predecessor, the bridge has shoulders that will allow accidents and breakdowns to be cleared. And the span is 20 feet higher, so the drawbridge will open about 60 times a year, instead of 260 times, for commercial and recreational vessels.

"There will be incremental relief to drivers in the region," said Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan.

As the celebration took place, workers were building the second span. One crew positioned lines of reinforcing steel on unfinished concrete piers, while another operated heavy machinery on the Virginia shore.

For the few dozen workers at the event, it was a day for cheer and gratification. They came with family members, posed for pictures and recorded the proceedings with video cameras.

Regina Lumpkin, an assistant with American Bridge Co., videotaped everything she could. Her job is to handle forms and coordinate supplies and make sure that "everybody is pretty much where they're supposed to be," she said. She was tickled to be on the bridge, she said, celebrating what had been accomplished. "I feel like I've played a pretty good part in it," she said.

The governors delivered different messages about what the bridge means.

Ehrlich touted the bridge as a catalyst for economic development, saying that it would enable growth in both states and particularly in Prince George's. "Breaking this bottleneck is a major win for our collective economic development," Ehrlich said.

Kaine, who backs a plan to raise state taxes to pay for about $1 billion more a year for transportation projects, said the bridge was a testament to what is possible when the region works together and invests in infrastructure. Kaine said such projects as the bridge and the Springfield interchange help "combat some feelings citizens have gotten that it's so bad there's no solution."

Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) delighted the crowd with the story of how money was raised for the bridge. "It was June 3rd, 1998, and I was a young senator in those days," the 79-year-old Warner began.

He was one of five senators discussing how to allocate money in a transportation bill. One by one, the senators said what they wanted. Then it was Warner's turn.

"I said I wanted a billion dollars," Warner recalled. He was met with silence by his fellow senators. So he launched into a patriotic speech about how a young Dwight Eisenhower -- even before he became president -- saw the value of a national system of highways and how the Wilson bridge was a vital link in that interstate system.

More silence, Warner said. Finally, the chairman turned to him and said: "Okay. Nine hundred million dollars for old Ike." Two years later, Warner helped secure another $600 million, and the states chipped in the rest.

"There's much said in Congress about building bridges to nowhere," Warner said, referring to the controversial funding of a $223 million bridge that links a small Alaskan town to a sparsely populated island. "This bridge is a bridge to everywhere, and it's worth every penny."

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